Suicide Rates of American and British Artistic Figures
Unless I am forgetting, or am unaware of, a whole lot of Brits, the disparity is quite striking. The American side has Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, Hunter S Thompson, John K O'Toole (the guy wrote The Confederacy of Dunces), Kurt Cobain, not to mention the various people like Edgar Allen Poe and Jim Morrison who drank themselves to death by the age of 40. Contrariwise the only British suicides I can think of offhand are Virginia Woolf and the singer from Joy Division. A brief internet search--I don't have the time or the fire for a longer right now--for literary suicides turns up three more American writers of some repute: Vachel Lindsay (second to last words: "I took Lysol"), Hart Crane (jumped overboard from a ship sailing from Havana to New York), and Sara Teasdale (pills; also once dated Vachel Lindsay). (--I need to verify these from some of my real books--BS/PW) I must be missing some big names on the British side, but I can't think of whom. Byron is often considered to have grown weary of life and willed his own end after a fashion, but I don't consider exposing oneself carelessly or indifferently to potential hazard to be on the same level as deliberately ingesting castor oil or settling into the bathtub with a carton either of vodka or razor blades, with no intention of ever coming out of it. I am limiting my inquiry to Britain and America because I am not familiar with a large enough sample of suicides from other societies to make a meaningful comparison. My impression is that writers and artists from the strange and (to me) endlessly fascinating lands of the former Austrian Empire had a unusually high number of strangely circumstanced deaths, including some suicides, but I would have to examine the case further. The same with Russia; in both instances the impulse of the artists to do themselves in I would suspect derives from rather different causes than those which drive Americans to the same.
What would explain the difference though between England and America? One thing that strikes an American student of British culture is that British writers and artists seem more naturally to have genuine lifelong friends, belong to literary circles, etc, and maintain them throughout life in a way that Americans don't. The American writer by comparison seems really isolated, far more likely to spend the bulk of his life among people who will know absolutely nothing of how he thinks, what his interests are, what he does. Despite the griping about the culture (and the food and the weather and the attractiveness of the girls) and the iconoclastic/rebel stance that is not uncommon for prominent British artists to make, in reality the traditions and artistic history of the country, until very recently anyway, had a stronger and more effectively consoling presence in the collective life--in the use of the language and routines of national life alone if nothing else--than anything that seems to be accessible to their American counterparts. Enough of it, anyway, to ward off total despair, which is the emotion, I would suspect, that is necessary for people to actually kill themselves. The suicidal American writer, I would posit, is writing to and for an audience whose existence is figuratively much more in doubt; the common traditions and culture are too weak to support an intellectual understanding of any degree of intensity between two people without an uncommon amount of good fortune and personal compatibility to such an extent as is hard to find. This type of mental environment will undoubtedly drive a person to despair.
Whenever someone asks me (in an imaginary conversation--I never have real conversations) why I do not kill myself, for purely philosophical considerations, given the state of my mind, value to society, etc, which would seem to argue in favor of it, my main thought is that as I did not will myself into being, something else--nature, I will say--did, and I must presume that the intention of this will, whatever it be, and for whatever reason, is that I not kill myself, at least until such time as I will have achieved full mastery over human life and can confidently pass an informed judgement as to whether it requires my continued presence in its drama. I have not earned that privilege. There is also my relentless Social Darwinist conditioning that believes that if a person fails to properly develop his mind, personality and usefulness that it is a just part of his punishment to live every day, for years on end, with the consequences of that neglect, which ought to make him unhappy; however, he has not earned the right to despair.
I apologize for the paucity and general weakness of posts lately. I get very tired late at night, but I have no other time to try and write (long beaches[?]) something...zzzzz